A word of good advice for anyone in North Korea while the Comrade Marshal Kim Jong Un is around: it’s always a good idea to at least pretend to care what he has to say and to try and pay attention. That’s just good policy. One of the best ways to ensure you look like you care is to take notes on what Kim’s saying like you’re a first-year biology student.
No one in the North Korean military wants to end up tied to a rock in Siberia because he got distracted by a squirrel, that’s just basic survival. But the Kims really are followed around by studious note takers, one who genuinely cares about what the Leader has to say, and there’s a reason that is both North Korean propaganda and North Korean tradition.
North Korea wasn’t always a state on the lunatic fringe. It was, at one time, a normal communist country, bent on converting the world to communism like any other communist country. Sometime in the 1970s, the personality cult of Kim Il-Sung took a sharp turn toward the unbelievable and has been headed that way ever since.
Kim Il-Sung, the first and current president of North Korea despite being dead since 1994, first offered some advice while visiting a Pyongyang factory in 1945, but that was pretty much your standard, run-of-the-mill photo op of a communist leader hanging out with the working class of his country. There was nothing weird about it.
Sometime in the 1950s, such official visits became a part of a campaign to rally workers toward increased productivity and industrialization. Kim Il-Sung formally began delivering “on the spot guidance” to factories, farms, and construction sites, where he made a show of offering his advice to the workers. While it inspired the workers, who thought of the elder Kim as a divine figure, it also helped Kim see what the problems facing the masses really were.
In the 1970s and 1980s, these tours began to take on a life all their own. The North Korean Workers Party appointed Kim’s son, Kim Jong-Il as the head of the party Propaganda and Agitation Department. The tours became a part of Kim’s personality cult. The Supreme Leader was no longer just inspiring the masses, he was offering advice, and then returning to find out if his advice had been followed – so it’s best to take notes.
More than that, what once began as a photo opportunity is now followed by a “loyalty determination gathering,” essentially a meeting to determine how the site will meet the expectations of the ruler, after he gave his advice, but the North Koreans don’t need much to spur them toward this goal.
The Propaganda and Agitation Department made Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il out to be demigods, and indoctrinated all North Koreans to this kind of thought from an early age. The Kims were infallible for most of the population. Even after the Fall of the Soviet Union, Kim Il-Sung’s death, and the famines that followed the rise of Kim Jong-Il, the masses continued to believe in the divine nature of the Kims.
Under Kim Jong-Il these visits became less about inspiring the workers and inspecting the problems in North Korean society and more about making a symbolic gesture. How Kim Jong-Un feels about these guidance visits isn’t really known, but by now, these visits are an expected tradition. It take roughly one year to prepare a site for a visit from North Korea’s top leader, and once he’s gone they install a plaque to commemorate the visit – just one more way to idolize the Cult of Kim.